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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Conference

Aired March 12, 2003 - 13:19   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We'll hear from Ari Fleischer.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This has been a busy day of telephone diplomacy for the president. Let me fill you in.

The president spoke with the president of the United Arab Emirates this morning, Sheikh Zaid. The president thanked him for his strong support and noted his courage in raising at the recent Arab League Summit the topic of Saddam Hussein stepping down and leaving Iraq.

The president and the sheikh agreed that action should be taken for the benefit of peace and to help the people of Iraq.

The president this morning also spoke with Philippine President Arroyo. The two presidents consulted about the situation in Iraq. President Bush appreciated President Arroyo's strong, consistent, moral leadership in demanding immediate and complete disarmament by Iraq.

The two leaders said they looked forward to President Arroyo's state visit later this spring. The president looks forward to celebrating our excellent bilateral relationships with the Republic of the Philippines on that occasion.

The two presidents also discussed the security situation in the Philippines. President Bush expressed strong support for President Arroyo's efforts to defeat terror and bring prosperity to the Philippines and to the south of the Philippines.

The two leaders agreed to continue to consult closely on how the United States can support the Philippines further in the war against terror.

The president this morning also spoke with the president of Pakistan to discuss, among other things, Iraq.

The president also spoke with President Putin about the situation in Iraq.

He will have additional phone calls to make later this afternoon, and just like we've done throughout the week we will give you a read later in the afternoon.

One other statement, then I'll be happy to take your question. You will receive a written document from the president later on this, but the president expresses his condolences to the people of Serbia on the assassination of Zoran Dzindzic.

Prime Minister Dzindzic will be remembered for his role in bringing democracy to Serbia and for his role in bringing Slobodan Milosevic to justice.

The president expresses his prayers and condolences to the people of Serbia.

And with that I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: What can you say at this point about whether the United States has the necessary nine votes to achieve that majority, even in the face of the veto?

FLEISCHER: I respond on that the way I have throughout the process, and that is we've always maintained that the time the ultimate vote -- outcome will be clear will be the day of the vote.

Just a small clarification, of course: A majority is eight, in the United Nations you need a super-majority, which is nine, and I don't think it's -- we're not publicly announcing where member states are. That's up to them to make that announcement public.

QUESTION: Does the president feel good about what he's trying to accomplish, going on a third day?

FLEISCHER: The president has approached this from a position not to make predictions about what other nations will do. The president views this as an important matter. The president views this as something that is especially important to our friends and our allies who we've been consulting with about this process. And it will be important to know what nations think and to see them take stands.

QUESTION: One final one on this: If the president -- we know because you said it, that he believes that Iraq poses a direct threat to the United States, and that allowing danger to gather only enhances or only intensifies that danger -- if you believe that France will veto and that a resolution won't be passed, then why not follow the advice of I'm sure some in this administration who are telling him, "Just walk away and let's get on with it"?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president thinks that, number one, this is a process that began in September when the president went to the Security Council. This is a test of the Security Council, no matter what the outcome. The president has made it plain to the American people that from an American point of view, it is not necessary to have a second resolution.

But the president has been very direct, very overt in saying that, on the advice and council of our friends and our allies and because of the importance of this to our friends and allies, we are pursuing this because a substantial part because of their thoughts and their recommendations. That's important. That's part of the diplomacy.

QUESTION: The U.S. ambassador to Russia today said there will be some sort-term damage in the U.S.-Russia relations should Russia not support the U.S. on the resolution. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) did that come up at all in the Putin-Bush phone call? And did Putin offer any assurances it would not veto (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going into (UNINTELLIGIBLE) all the phone calls. I'm not going to get any more specific in the details of those who say they're with us, those that say they would not be with us, those who say they're in between. I have deliberately not given that type of statement. That's up to the individual nations to discuss.

The president has said in many of the phone calls to the nations that are not with us he will be disappointed. That's stating the facts. And indeed he would be.

It is important.

And this is, in many ways, an important measure of these nations' commitment to the immediate disarmament of Saddam Hussein, these nations' commitment to the United Nations Security Council, and too backing up Security Council resolutions to determine whether the United Nations Security Council will have a role as a relevant and effective body.

QUESTION: How much of it is a test of their commitment to recriminations (ph) relations with the U.S.? The president is telling people he's disappointed.

FLEISCHER: Right.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) saying it would hurt relations.

FLEISCHER: And there's no question that the president will be disappointed in those nations that vote otherwise. There's no question about it.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) disappointment affect relations?

FLEISCHER: I don't think I can say it with any precision. I think that the American people reach their own conclusions. The American people think about these things. The representatives of Congress think about these things. In all cases the president knows that we will continue to focus on issues where we have united values or the other issues on which we will work closely. But I can't predict every eventuality.

QUESTION: Does the president still intend to call for a vote on this resolution even if it appears that it will either not gather the necessary nine votes or that it will be vetoed?

FLEISCHER: Nothing has happened has changed what I've said to you before.

QUESTION: What about Britain's six points which they have made public, which they would like to see in a new amendment?

FLEISCHER: The president very much appreciates the United Kingdom's benchmarks and their approach to this. We are working very closely with the United Kingdom as well as other nations on the Security Council discussing the United Kingdom and other nations' various ideas. This is all part of these final stages in diplomacy.

And I'm not going to comment on any of the specific benchmarks offered by any one nation or another nation, but the president is very appreciative of the efforts the United Kingdom is making. And we are continuing to pursue it here through the diplomatic course.

QUESTION: But you're not ruling anything out out of hand.

FLEISCHER: No, I'm just not negotiating it public. There is always, in these instances, a case of working diligently, working privately, because the best diplomacy often results from the ability to have private discussions, because on nation has a suggestion, a different nation has a twist or a change to one nation's suggestion. And that's how the diplomacy gets worked.

That's why you're seeing so many phone calls being made by the president and being made by the secretary of states and other presidents around the world. This is a multi-party process. And the president's judgment is the best way to handle this, from an effective diplomatic point of view, is to maintain the privacy of the specific discussions, and to see what the outcome is.

QUESTION: Is the president worried that if he attacks a sovereign nation without provocation that other nations will feel free to emulate this and attack their own designated enemy, and that we will lose our moral authority in the world?

FLEISCHER: The president views this as a matter of Iraq has provoked this action as a result of Iraq's failure to comply with the many Security Council resolutions that called for unilateral Iraqi action on disarmament, disarmament defined as immediately, unconditionally and without restriction.

QUESTION: So he doesn't think that other nations will follow suit in any way, taking our lead?

FLEISCHER: The situation in Iraq -- as the president explained in his speech to the United Nations where all the world heard, and clearly understood the president's intent in seeking a resolution, and what the outcome might be, when the president talked about serious consequences. The president viewed Iraq, as he said in September, as a unique situation, a unique gathering threat.

QUESTION: Why is it unique?

FLEISCHER: Because I think when you take a look at how the...

QUESTION: Other nations have nuclear weapons pointed at each other.

FLEISCHER: And the issue is Iraq's history of defying the United Nations Security Council's specific and unilateral call on Iraq to disarm and to do so immediately and do so in a way that was binding. And in the assessment...

QUESTION: And the U.N. is very important in...

FLEISCHER: And in the assessment that has been made by the United States, by many nations around the world, as well as the overwhelming amount of American people who define Iraq as a threat to the safety of the United States, the American people overwhelming feel Iraq is a threat.

QUESTION: These British benchmark tests, they're very specific, very strict; not much wiggle room in them. You, kind of, know if Saddam Hussein has complied or not, unlike these, kind of, inspections which have mixed-bag results. The British want to give it -- place it before Iraq and place it before the U.N., and give it some time, oh, 10 days, a week, and we're hearing that the president doesn't want to give it that much time. Is that true?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, you're very artfully trying to get me to do the president's negotiating in public. The president, as I indicated -- he appreciates the efforts that the United Kingdom is making.

Let me put it to you this way: The president is going the last mile for diplomacy. We shall see if the other nations on the Security Council are willing to entertain that last mile. We shall see.

QUESTION: Is the last mile 10 days long?

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to define either the duration of the last mile or the length of the last mile.

QUESTION: So you are ruling that out.

FLEISCHER: No, I think you can appreciate the reason why. It is never in the interview of somebody who seeks a positive outcome to do the negotiating in public.

These are serious times. These are serious diplomatic endeavors under way. They literally are happening. They'll be on the phone this afternoon again. And it would not be place, it would not be proper, it would not be productive for any nation to discuss what is the nature and the specifics of a movable diplomacy is.

QUESTION: You mentioned you're going this for the allies. Are you concerned -- is the president concerned that Tony Blair that might not survive a defeat at the United Nations, and that as Secretary Rumsfeld raised the possibility yesterday, the United States might have to go to war in Iraq without the United Kingdom?

FLEISCHER: The president feels very deeply, especially in a democracy, the right thing to do from a point of view of winning the support of the public is to act in the name of peace. And the president views the actions to disarm Saddam Hussein as serving the cause of piece. And that's why he feels so strongly about it, and so, too, does Tony Blair.

QUESTION: Was Secretary Rumsfeld speaking out of turn when he said these things yesterday?

FLEISCHER: No, I think that he issued a clarification, as an amendment to his briefing that explained it all.

QUESTION: Did you ask him to give that clarification at the White House?

FLEISCHER: You'd have to talk to DOD about anything that affected their statements. I don't know that.

QUESTION: Ari, this morning you mentioned there is a diplomatic deadline and a military deadline. How are those two deadlines different?

FLEISCHER: The amendment to the resolution that is pending up in the United Nations set a deadline for when the diplomatic window will be closed. They gave Saddam Hussein a sufficient amount of time, as of this date, March 17th, to come into accord, final chance defined. At that point the diplomatic window would be closed.

The president has not said what course of action would take place beyond that. If the president were to make the decision to authorize the use of force, that would be something the president would then discuss with the American people. And that would be the form of an announcement, if there is one, about something that may (UNINTELLIGIBLE), from a military point of view, the use of force.

QUESTION: But there's two deadlines you said.

FLEISCHER: Well, there's only one diplomatic date that has been provided the United Nations. The president himself has not set a deadline. I don't rule that out. The president has not done that.

QUESTION: There's a separate military track, it sounds like.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: Time is running out on military.

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: And when does that time run out?

FLEISCHER: If and when the president announces it.

QUESTION: Putting aside what you expect or hope, has there been any contingency planning or discussion of the possibility of disarming Saddam Hussein without the military participation of Great Britain?

FLEISCHER: Again, anything operational, you need to take to DOD about. But as I indicated this morning, the president is confident that the United Kingdom will be with the United States in this endeavor to disarm Saddam Hussein from a military point of view. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) operational issues, is there any discussion, that you know of in this building about that eventuality?

FLEISCHER: Anything operational, you need to talk to DOD about. But again, to say from the president's point of view, he's confident the United Kingdom will be one of the nations that is participating in this.

QUESTION: Is it still your position the president has not made a decision about whether or not to use force?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: There was the meeting this morning of the president, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, General Myers. They must have discussed some kind of plan B if the British are not able to play a role in an attack on Iraq.

And secondly, it seems as though you're preparing us for possibly not getting those votes on the Security Council; saying eight is a majority, nine is a super-majority.

It's been six months to the day since President Bush went to the Security Council. What are you -- what does he feel he has accomplished since then?

FLEISCHER: One, let me take a step back on certain scheduling issues and meetings that you often see here at the White House; because of the position of your cameras you see everything at the White House.

The president, as I announce every morning, has regular National Security Council meetings, and you named several of the cast of characters who attend those meetings.

The president has these on a frequent basis, sometimes three times a week, sometimes four, sometimes five. So you will continue to see these meetings, and in keeping with our longstanding tradition I do not discuss things that are discussed at a National Security Council meeting.

In addition, I was asked yesterday -- Secretary Rumsfeld was over here and I think it's fair to say you will see Secretary Rumsfeld over here even beyond the course of those meetings.

This is the planning, this is the discussions that go into any, obviously, preparations that would be made in consideration of the use of force. So, you will continue to see these things.

I will be circumscribed in terms of what I can say to you about any of the topics that are discussed here.

Your second question dealt with -- on the eight or the nine, no, I'm not giving you any indications or predictions about that. As I said, it'll be up to the different nations to report and to reveal.

QUESTION: What does the president feel he has accomplished in the six months since the day that he went to the U.N.?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president clearly views what has been accomplished is that the United Nations has at least in part woken up to the urgent need to disarm Saddam Hussein. Whether they wake up to the point of actually acting and enforcing the resolutions remains to be seen.

But prior to September 12th, the United Nations has spent the last four years basically asleep when it came to disarming Saddam Hussein. The president hopes they will awaken to the gathering threat, and that the Security Council will take action to disarm Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Since nine is the number that counts, why even mention the eight?

FLEISCHER: Well, literally because the question raised the issue of majority; majority equals eight, but I've always said this and continue to say, under United Nations rules to pass a resolution it takes nine without a veto. There's no argument about that.

QUESTION: The president's making so many phone calls on this, it would appear that he is personally negotiating whatever package is likely to go forward and be presented at the U.N. Is that a fair characterization?

FLEISCHER: That's probably a little bit of an overstatement. I think the crafting of the language is in the hands of the diplomats; they are the ones who actively work through, change this word, move that sentence. The president has given them, basically, parameters within which to work, and then they work it. And that's the president's style.

There's a bigger question, a bigger picture that the president focuses on, such as, "I hope you will join us in support of the second resolution." And then they may say, "Well, we can talk about some changes," he says, "Work with the State Department, work with Secretary Powell." So it's a teamwork approach.

QUESTION: On a conceptual level he's clearly saying to people, "Look, if we did this, or if we did that, and what do you -- and what's your concern and what's your bottom line on these things?"

I mean, he is involved in discussions with other leaders about what their...

FLEISCHER: Other leaders may suggest that the president thought or a change or something along those lines. And the president will give them the thoughts. For example, if somebody said a 30-day deadline extension, the president would have made crystal clear to them the answer is no on that, because that would not lead to the disarmament of Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Now, has the U.S. signed off on the British benchmarks? Or is it reserving judgment at this point? FLEISCHER: That's a clever way to ask the same question. But again, I just am not going to negotiate in public. The talks are ongoing. So nothing is final because the talks are ongoing.

QUESTION: So you can't say if the U.S. has accepted the British benchmarks as presented this morning?

FLEISCHER: These talks are ongoing, so it's -- and again the reason the talks keep going is because other nations then get talked to. You talk to one nation and say, "I think that's a good idea, that might move the ball forward. Let's talk to this third nation, let's talk to this fourth nation." And then you get back together and talk again and see where the status of negotiations is.

QUESTION: Stepping back from the details (OFF-MIKE) does the president view it as a basis for a possible compromise that would break the deadlock at the U.N.?

FLEISCHER: That would be a judgment that's made by other nations. The president is working to bring people together. But in the end it will come up to some of these undecided nations to determine whether or not a deadlock is broken.

QUESTION: And is he willing to consider -- if it's a means to gaining consensus or is a chance for a consensus, is he willing to consider pushing back the vote from Friday?

FLEISCHER: Again, as I indicated earlier, nothing has happened that changes anything that we've said before on the timing.

QUESTION: But if you're actively involved in a negotiations, the president's still making calls, and...

FLEISCHER: The time -- the president has made that abundantly clear that time is running out here.

QUESTION: Ari, this morning the Council on Foreign Relations issued a task force report entitled, "Iraq: The Day After," meaning after the United States establishes control. And it indicated that the task force felt it would require a commitment of $20 billion annually to maintain stability in Iraq. Is that a figure that the president, the White House is willing to live with, which, of course, would substantially dwarf any aid to any other country?

FLEISCHER: I have not seen any individual estimates on reconstruction so I'm not in a position to evaluate what that would be. And, of course, in terms of reconstruction of Iraq, the Iraqi people and the Iraqi nation have many resources of their own that would contribute toward the rebuilding of Iraq. That would be expected. Iraqi people will have much at stake in their own future and they'll be able to contribute greatly to it.

QUESTION: But is that a figure that makes sense?

FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to evaluate a figure like that. QUESTION: Ari, in the president's discussions with President Putin, is it safe to assume that he was discussed with him the downside of casting a veto vote in the Security Council and its affect on the relationship between the United States and Russia?

And second, are there any plans for President Bush to discuss this with President Chirac of France?

FLEISCHER: As we've been doing, we'll keep you informed on the phone calls. But to state the obvious, President Chirac is working the phones in the opposite direction. And so, I think you can refer from yourself whether or not that would be productive. But in all cases, the president and President Chirac, beyond this, will have things to talk about because we are allied nations no matter how this comes out despite any difficulties that come up.

And on the topic of the conversation with President Putin, I've been very general in all my conversations with you about these conversations that the president's having with the foreign leaders, and I'm going to leave it at that. That's the case with all the calls the president's made to the leaders of Africa, to the leaders that I mentioned today. I think, given where the diplomacy is, that's the best course to take.

QUESTION: Ari, several diplomats here in town are now saying when they are presented with new potential language for a resolution, it does move them a little closer, quite frankly, to the U.S. or British position. Can you tell us or can you give us an idea whether or not this is something that the White House or, specifically, the president in some of his conversations, is also picking up; that these scenarios, when presented to some of the so-called fence-sitting nations, it really does move them a little closer?

FLEISCHER: I do not want to offer any guesses about the final outcome. I think, again, individual nations will state their positions and do so publicly when they want to.

And again, I can only sum it up by the way I said it earlier. We are, indeed, in the final stages of diplomacy and in these final stages, the president is going the extra mile. That extra mile will come to an end and the time for diplomacy will come to an end. The only question that will remain is has Saddam Hussein disarmed? That's what this is all about now.

QUESTION: Just to follow up for the sake of clarification, is it a done deal, is it guaranteed that the U.S. and Britain will put forward another text or resolution on this?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I keep getting asked that question in different formulations. And as I said, nothing has happened that changes what you heard.

QUESTION: Coming back one more time to the cost of the war and its aftermath, the same report referenced a minute ago by the Council on Foreign Relations, comprised of a bipartisan group of former presidential advisers, faulted the president and the administration for not coming forward with any cost figures. And you've said repeatedly from the podium that there are too many various scenarios to calculate, to give anybody any kind of reasonable estimate. With that said, in 1999 when the administration was trying to persuade Congress on the merits of a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, then President Clinton would have groups of lawmakers down here at the White House for extended give-and-take sessions. Participants in those meetings saying they routinely asked for and routinely were given cost estimates. That, too, was a potentially open-ended engagement which people had real questions about whether we should be there, how much it was going to cost and what the fiscal impact would be.

If President Clinton and his people could give lawmakers on both sides of the aisle cost estimates, why can't you do the same thing?

FLEISCHER: This goes back to the question that was put to the president on Thursday night about costs, and I cannot go beyond what the president said. The president indicated that there are conversations about the costs. and at the appropriate time a supplemental will be sent up to the Congress. I can't go beyond that.

QUESTION: Well, back then, as now, before anything had been decided, people on Capitol Hill were looking for information and they weren't able to get it. Why isn't that...

FLEISCHER: If you're asking me to go beyond what the president says, I cannot do that.

QUESTION: Ari, can I ask two quick ones on Iraq? First, about the British principles. I understand you're not going to negotiate in public on it, but in the past when the British have presented a text, it has been with -- not just consultation with us, but in lockstep with us. Have we come to a parting of the ways here that they're acting on their own?

FLEISCHER: No. It's exactly as I described. There's a series of international negotiations and discussions going on about it. They have not offered anything yet at the United Nations. Nothing has been formally tabled because it continues to be talked with the third nation, with the fourth nation, et cetera. So I've given you a general approach to it, but I cannot get into the specifics of one area versus another area versus another area.

Other nations, too, have ideas. It's not just the United Kingdom that is working together with us providing thoughts, ideas. There are other nations, too. Because I'm not negotiating in public, I'm not going to go through: Here's a suggestion from this nation. Here's a specific suggestion from that nation.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) they're not acting on their own.

FLEISCHER: The United States and the United Kingdom stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the president's basically disappearing from public sight, if you will, since the news conference. Is it merely that he just needs all this time, all the time for phone calls, or is there a calculation here that it's...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... out of the public eye?

FLEISCHER: It is also a sense of -- as many hours as the calls take, that is not the issue here, that calls take -- that's what's on the president's schedule.

What's at issue here is, again, the president wants to conduct this diplomacy in a way that he thinks is the most effective. And the way to do it most effectively, in his judgment, is through the serious and private consultation. And for the president to get drawn into a public discussion of this provision, that provision, this much time, that much time, would put him in a position of either just not answering any questions about it because he won't negotiate in public or pursuing it the way he has.

I understand the requests reporters always have to have an opportunity to talk to the president, and I hear those requests, believe me. But that's the answer from the president's point of view.

O'BRIEN: We're going to leave the briefing for a moment. We'll be monitoring it.

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